How a Man Can Grieve for a Deceased Friend

by A Manly Guest Contributor on October 19, 2011 · 124 comments

in Friendship, Relationships & Family

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Marcus Brotherton. 

How unexpected—and yet not—this late night phone call from Shannon, the wife of my close friend Paul. “Come to the hospital,” Shannon said. “Come say goodbye to your friend.”

Paul had already beaten cancer. He had gone through five rounds of chemo. After his hair fell out, after he had thrown up for months, after his fingers tingled with the aftershocks of radiation, doctors announced remission. Paul had won. But as soon as victory was claimed, an infection wormed its way into his body. It wouldn’t go away. It spread from his lungs through his kidneys and lodged in his brain.

I didn’t sleep after Shannon phoned. I felt scared, like a big exam was before me and I hadn’t studied. Early next morning I cancelled appointments, got on the freeway, and drove five hours to the hospital in their city.

The last time Paul and I had talked was three weeks earlier. On the phone he had taken shallow breaths between sentences, gasping like a fish on a riverbank, but his lung infection was only a setback, we all thought. When you’re sick for a long time you have your ups and downs. In the days that followed, Paul drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to communicate except to point at an alphabet. One of the last phrases he spelled was: “What’s happening to me?”

I walked into the intensive care unit where Paul lay. Shannon hugged me and helped me put on a gown. Paul’s body looked yellow and twisted with tubes running in and out. A ventilator was taped to his mouth. Other friends were there, Shannon’s sister, and her dad. “Take some time to say whatever you need,” Shannon said, and everybody filed out of the room except me.

Nothing prepares you for this. Nothing is rehearsed or written down. I sat on the edge of Paul’s bed and touched his arm. He didn’t move. Doctors didn’t know for sure what Paul was able to grasp by then. Maybe nothing. But they said hearing is often the last function to fail. So I spoke.

I asked Paul if he remembered being in college together, about the trip we took to the Grand Canyon just after graduation. I talked about motorbikes and music, things he loved. I told him all would be looked after; he had nothing to worry about. I said I loved him, and that I was proud of him.

The mechanical ventilator rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell.

We were alone for about 10 minutes before Shannon’s sister came in and asked me to come out into the hall. She needed to walk me through a decision the family had made. A few minutes later we went back inside and all gathered at Paul’s bedside. Shannon played a tape his young daughters had made for him. Little ones to him belong, sang his girls, and a nurse lowered Paul’s blood pressure medication. I stood near his shoulder, my hand stretched on his. It was over in minutes. Perhaps they fell, I don’t know, but Paul’s eyes drifted from his wife to me, then looked ahead. They never closed.

We stayed in the room for some time speaking in low voices, giving hugs, passing around tissues. There would be piles of get-well cards to box up, a wall of colored pictures to take down. But that would come later. Shannon cradled Paul’s head one last time, kissed him, and lifted a sheet over his face. He was 36.

What do you do?

How does a man handle the death of a close friend, particularly when the friend dies when he’s young? The processes I followed were neither straightforward nor tightly defined. Here are three things I did. Your experience will undoubtedly look different.

1. Walk

The evening after Paul died, I went to a marina and walked as long and vigorously as I could. His death was uncharted territory for me, his life so unfinished. For hours, it was just me walking in the dusky moonlight with wind and waves and a pile of emotions for which I had no words. I learned that physical exercise is imperative in grieving—and it wasn’t just for that one night. In the months that followed, I walked nearly every night. I ran. I jogged. I did push-ups. I went to the gym far more than usual. Instead of turning to a substance or harmful habit for relief, it’s necessary to go somewhere you can move. Let the emotion work itself out of your body.

2. Remember

At Paul’s funeral was a table with mementos from his life: his Martin guitar, a pair of Sperry Topsiders, Mt. Dew and Doritos, his favorites. Friends assembled a slide show—Paul at the beach, Paul on his wedding day, Paul with his children. As the slides ran, I had to consciously breathe to keep myself from falling apart. Ready, inhale, concentrate, exhale. Remembering was agonizing, and I didn’t want to go there, but I needed to. The memories were coming whether I wanted them to or not. In the weeks that followed, memories snuck up on me at the strangest times, at unexpected places. Months later in the middle of a workday I was driving down a road when memories hit me anew. I needed to pull to the shoulder and sob.

3. Hurt

What I didn’t need to do was cheer up. What I didn’t need to do was look on the bright side of things. Rather, I needed to fully grasp that someone who meant much to me was no longer alive. I felt leveled, floored, struck by a bare fist. For months, I simply gave myself permission to ache.

Certainly there was more.

Many seasons passed before I arrived at any conclusions about Paul’s death. My questions were huge, and what finally made sense to me was this: I would stop trying to make sense of things. I would never know why Paul died as young as he did. Instead of asking questions, I would choose to believe reasons existed that I am not meant to know.

To this day, I hold Paul’s memory close. I honor the memory of a deep friendship now passed. I believe I will see him one day again in worlds beyond ours. And I choose to have faith.

Have you ever lost a friend? How did you handle it?


Marcus Brotherton is the acclaimed author of Shifty’s War and other books. Read more from Marcus at his blog: Men Who Lead Well.

{ 124 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Nick October 31, 2011 at 1:13 am

One death this brings to my mind is that of an acquaintance that I knew in my high school. I say acquaintance because we didn’t really talk all that much, and weren’t friends, but weren’t on negative terms with each other either. Anyways, she died from “dusting” (for those unfamiliar with this term, it’s when a person tries to get high by using household objects). I remember hearing about it that night from a friend on Facebook, and just feeling nothing at first. I felt like I was going through a pseudo-reality, like walking through a dream. Then, all of a sudden, the rage hit. I felt like I wanted the entire universe to burn, that a thousand Big Bangs would not be powerful enough to express my anger. Eventually, I began to simmer down as I talked with another friend, and told him how it all felt like a dream, how you go through life always thinking that death would never hit the ones you actually know. That night, I’m not sure how much I actually slept, and how much I lied awake in a half-conscious state, somewhere between dreams and reality. I remember feeling almost guilty to sleep, like it was betraying her somehow. Eventually, I did fall asleep, but it was far from peaceful.
The next day, I woke up in a fairly good mood, as I was excited for my birthday (which was that day). Then, it all hit me again, like a sledgehammer to my soul, about how she had died the night before. I half-heartedly got ready for school, barely was able to tell my parents about what happened, and then drove off to school. When I got there, it was just pure silence. I went to a pretty small school, where everyone knew each other, so everyone was hurting in some way. Going to my first class, I remember that I couldn’t even close my eyes, because I would start to cry. The rest of the day went pretty much the same way for me.
While I don’t dare say that I went through a harder time than her friends or family did, but it still hurt quite a lot. It’s the kind of thing that numbs over time, but never really truly heals. Judging by this experience, I’d say that this article is right on the money. One of the worst things you can do is to keep yourself so occupied that you forget to leave time to grieve. Holding it in may seem like the good thing to do, but down the road, it will tear you apart from the inside out. My personal piece of advice would be to have something which reminds you of that person, whether it’s a song, a place, a picture, etc, and expose yourself to it from time to time. For example, with her, I attach songs to my memory of her. So every time I hear “Wish You Were Here,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Fred Bear,” (the chorus makes me think of her), I make a point of remembering her.
Very well written article. One of the best on this site, I’d say.

102 Stephen October 31, 2011 at 11:44 am

I’ve lost friends in the past, but 6 months ago I lost my daughter. She was only 26 days old and her name was Maggie. As a journalist I’ve found that writing is a fine way to cope, and as an athlete exercise is certainly helpful for keeping your body’s chemicals leveled out properly. But the thing I’ve realized has helped me the most is time alone. Getting away from cell phones, internet, television, and every other distraction of the world forces a man to face the hard thoughts and questions that are waiting to be answered. They will fight to get out of you until they are addressed.

103 Heather October 31, 2011 at 3:58 pm

This was lovely. As a frequent reader [yes, even though I'm a girl ;) ], this was much-appreciated as I grieve the loss of my grandfather. He was a fan of this site, which prompted me to begin visiting – because, you know, he and I were inseparable and whatever he read HAD to be good! So, thank you for sharing – it’s nice to hear a man’s take on grief and remember my sweet and gracious Papaw.

104 Gabe November 3, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Thanks for writing this, Marcus. I just lost my grandpa, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to grieve his death. Reading your story is honestly a huge help. Thanks for sharing your life with us.

105 Karl November 3, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Thank you.

106 Richard November 4, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Thanks for writing this. I too lost my best friend three years ago. He was 33 and died of a rare and untreatable disease, a fact he kept from me.

I still think to call him, chew things over together, I see his son as often as I can but still cannot fathom why, and even that he has has gone.

Opening it all up was a brave thing to do.

107 Johnny November 5, 2011 at 3:14 am

This article really affected me very deeply. I’m sorry for your loss.

Losing someone that you love is never easy. In my life, there have been two friends that have passed. One was a suicide at 16, and the other died a senseless death due to a handgun at a party a few years later.

Everyone is different and deals with grief in different ways, but if you find yourself dealing with something that is just TOTALLY senseless, meaningless and awful, that it shakes your beliefs to their very core and seems to leave a black, gaping, bleeding hole in your heart, SEEK HELP. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT BEING A “MAN”. DO NOT HOLD IT IN. YOUR FRIEND WOULD WANT YOU TO MOVE ON, YOU’RE NOT HONORING THEIR MEMORY BY KEEPING AN EMOTIONAL SCAR.

I played it that way and ruined my university career by coping with crushing depression I never told anyone about. What were supposed to be the best years turned into some of the worst. One day I hit rock bottom when I, seemlingly in a trance, started looking around the house for stuff to kill myself with. Rope? Pills? Rusty razor?

After snapping myself out of it, I started talking about my situation with my other friends and family. I travelled away from my hometown. I got out.

Things are better now, I’m married to a wonderful woman and am thankful to be alive. If I didn’t have my family and support, who knows where I would be right now? Drugs? Clinically depressed? Dead?

Thanks for reading this.

108 Robert Reeves November 7, 2011 at 12:33 am

I get restless when people and fammily make fun of the Royal British fammly and how I know more about British History, tv actor, pome wrights ect. how can I handle them in a proper manner? I’m looking to joining the U.S. Natinal Gurad and after I serve my 6 or 20 years, insted of going back to Amarica I will start living in London and buy a Pub/Dinner.

109 Garret November 7, 2011 at 8:28 am

It seems as if many of us have lost someone who was close to us. This is one of the most important things which will help in the grieving process. It is knowing you are not alone. After the loss of a loved one it isn’t unusual to feel depressed, like your world is spiraling down. You feel helpless, like there isn’t anything that can pick you up and you may even feel numb. The big thing is that you probably feel alone in this, even if many other people are suffering from the same loss of a loved one or friend, you feel like no one else could possible feel exactly the same way. That is why this article and all these comments are very important to the healing process, hearing other people working through this very difficult time helps you put into perspective what your feeling and also makes you realize people have gone through very similar situations so you don’t have to be alone in this.

I lost someone close to me growing up. It was my cousin, who actually was a bit more like a brother. We were one year apart growing up so we spent much of our youth hanging out. He died from a cliff jumping accident when he was 20. I remember the exact moment when I found out the news and my reaction included a flurry of different emotions and utter shock. It was hard to realize that he was gone, just like that. I’m now 24 and it has been almost 5 years. It’s still hard to believe he is gone, because I moved away to college at 17 so the last few years we didn’t see each other so often.

Everyone deals with the loss of someone differently but something that we all need to do is let how we feel out. If it is something that is upsetting us, maybe even if your angry, talk about it. If your emotions are overwhelming you have a cry. It’s ok, because I find the longer you bottle it up inside the more that anxious uncertain feeling will grow and eventually come out. You may also find out that your emotions may creep up on you at unexpected times. I couldn’t cry at my cousins funeral because i was too busy being strong for everyone else and I still think I was in shock. But I attended my girlfriends grandmothers funeral recently and my emotions over my cousin just flooded and I think I cried more than she did. So there may be things which will trigger your emotions from time to time, but it’s ok that this happens.

Anyways years later the feeling of loss is still there, but it does get easier. The wound will heal, maybe slowly but give it time and do what is necessary for the healing process and it will heal. While it will probably leave a mark on you it is what reminds me that I am human and that I don’t feel numb to the world anymore. Thanks for listening.

110 Derrik November 7, 2011 at 10:25 pm

I lost my friend a montha ago in a motorcycle accident. My advice is Drink alone and remember the good times. Drink a little and cry a little. If all else fails..Drink a little more.

111 Louis November 8, 2011 at 6:51 am

I remember when I was 16, my friend passed away after our first O levels paper.

It was 7pm, I had 3 papers back to back, and we were looking forward to a day off the next day. Then the teachers called us together, and brought the message to us, that Adrian had passed away. I was shocked: I knew that guy for only 3 days, and we were getting along ok, and he was gone. And it was the first time I had someone close to me pass away.

But what I did was not cry, I helped to comfort some of my friends, and in my heart, I hope he’s at peace.

Cause I am sure, even in death, he won’t want a jolly fellow cry for him.

112 Jude52 November 15, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Thank you to all who commented. My oldest daughter died at age 11, seven years ago after a life long illness. Losing a child is devastating for a father. I think of her every day, and while things have gotten better, some days are still a struggle. A lot of what has been said here is good advice: exercise; avoiding alcohol, etc.; talking about the lost loved one (which is something many men often do not do well). I recommend a book, “Swallowed by a Snake: the gift of the masculine side of healing” by Thomas Golden. It’s a book about how men grieve differently than women. The author is a therapist who specializes in counseling men in grief. There is a companion book called, “So You Know a Man Who Is Grieving” which is a good guide if you have a male friend who is grieving and you would like some guidance on how to help him.

113 Jude52 November 17, 2011 at 8:17 am

Thank you to all who commented. My oldest daughter died at age 11, seven years ago after a life long illness. Losing a child is devastating for a father. I think of her every day, and while things have gotten better, some days are still a struggle. A lot of what has been said here is good advice: exercise; avoiding alcohol, etc.; talking about the lost loved one (which is something many men often do not do well). I recommend a book, “Swallowed by a Snake: the gift of the masculine side of healing” by Thomas Golden. It’s a book about how men grieve differently than women. The author is a therapist who specializes in counseling men in grief. There is a companion book called, “So you know a Man Who Is Grieving” which is a good guide if you have a male friend who is grieving and you would like some guidance on how to help him.

114 Kris October 5, 2012 at 6:03 am

Two reasons why men cry, memories and/or regrets, solution is simple for a simple man. Make great memories and live without regret. I lost friends and family, however, i have good memories of them, and honestly I have no regrets. A man is man, and if tears must flow then they must.

115 Tim October 19, 2012 at 8:29 am

I was a soldier, an Infantryman in Iraq. On Memorial Day of 2007, I lost 8 brothers. These men and I were close to varying degrees, but these were all men I had trained, trained with, or learned from.

Let me say this and be perfectly clear: Do not be afraid to talk about it.

Most of you will be lucky enough to not witness your friends’ deaths, especially violent ones. But no matter how they died, losing a close friend is a trauma that there is no way to prepare for. It’s a trauma that you need to talk about. I can honestly say that talking about what I had witnessed and the pain I felt from their loss is the one thing that kept me from putting a bullet in my head or drinking myself to death.

In addition, I’d like to thank you for writing this down for the world to read. Trust me, I know how hard it can be. I want you to know that you and your friend’s family are in my thoughts and prayers.

116 Kris December 18, 2012 at 8:49 pm

I lost my best friend when I was 20. We had grown up together, and graduated together in 2008. He went into the U.S. Army, 82′nd airborne. He was deployed in Afghanistan and his HUMVEE took and IED in Feb 2010. I worked for the local police dept, I got the call early one morning that Zach had been killed in action. I went into shock, I do not remember the rest of that day. At the time I worked for a great chain of command, the SGT and the LT drove me home and advised my family to look after me, they also gave me 5 days off no loss of pay or vacation time, during that time there was lots of grieving, and remembering the good times, it was a long recovery, however I can say if the men that I called my friends and my family, I wouldn’t have made it. I was able to relieve Zach’s family of some of the burdens of planning and organizing. Now almost 3 years later I still talk to his mother and father almost every week, and we will go up to the New Mexico national cemetery and visit him, we also host a ski/snowboard race in his honor every year.

117 Attila December 23, 2012 at 10:00 pm

My view is that you HAVE to allow yourself to FEEL whatever comes up – and have to be ready to go.on the roller coaster- trusting that you will get back to the base safely. I know of too many people who seem to act as though nothing happened- even after losing their parents. There may also be some cultural issues—every person that I have known who has returned to work THE NEXT DAY after losing a parent is of Anglo-Saxon Protestant background (Southern). As a Souther European- this is me. It appears to be a form of denial.

118 CJ January 9, 2013 at 10:31 pm

I had a friend in high school who died of brain cancer in April of 2012. He hadn’t even finished high school yet (I was a junior in college). When I found out he had died, it never hit me; I was so stressed out from projects and finals that it just didn’t register. Once I got caught up on all my work, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I distracted myself with my guitar and my piano, but every now and then (like when I read this article) it still hits me pretty hard. When this happens, I listen to the Billy Joel CDs he bought me in high school as an unsolicited thank you for driving him home after musical rehearsal (his family couldn’t afford a car for him).

119 Jeffrey March 18, 2013 at 2:19 am

I had a friend who died a couple of days ago. I came to this site for comfort, not sure if I should continue crying or not. I’m in high school and so is he. Sixteen seems too young to die, especially since it wasn’t drugs or an accident of any kind. It was his heart that failed. He was a track star and band member as well as an AP Student and a good friend. It seemed as if he was able to connect with everyone. At first, I held back from crying, trying to man it out. Then I went on his Facebook wall, and like many others, posted a meaningful comment. There were a lot of “likes” on my post on his page, and every time someone went and “liked” it, I would go back and re-read it. Doing so each time seemed to make it harder and harder, starting from just rereading it to tearing up and then full out crying.
Life is sometimes very unfair, but hey, it has its ups and downs. I know it’ll get easier as time goes on. I have found some comfort here. This is one of the most powerful articles on the website. Well done.

120 Mary March 24, 2013 at 3:39 pm

We lost a close friend on March 11, 2013. The memorial is March 30,2013. My husband just starts crying out of the blue. He ask if we have to go to the memorial , and I tell him yes, your friend would want you to be there.

starts crying ou of the blue and ask if we have to go to the memorial. I tell him yes, it is the right thing to do and our deceased friend would wan him to be there.

121 Kristy May 4, 2013 at 5:46 pm

My boyfriend lost one of his close friends this January 2013. A year before, he lost both his grandmother and a close childhood friend. We had just met in November 2012 and started dating in December. As soon as I heard about his friend passing, I wanted nothing more than to be there for him through this hard time, but it seemed like he wanted to just be alone, which I accepted and told him I am always there for him. He has definitely pulled away more and more and doesn’t answer phone calls or texts so I have been giving him alone time and space so he can heal. I feel like our relationship is in limbo though and he will not tell me if he still wants to stay together or separate for awhile. I feel like the best thing to do is just be patient until he comes to me and wants to talk.

Does this sound like the right thing for me to do?

Thank you for this honest article and providing some insight on how men tend to grieve differently than women sometimes.

122 Angus June 18, 2013 at 7:55 am

This article definitely hits home, and most unfortunately, because it is very much a recent event. On January 7th of this year (2013) my father died. I say died rather then passed away, because, passed away sounds so very peaceful and easy, which would not do this time justice. At 18, it was and is very difficult to go on without a father to guide me. He had oesophageal cancer which spread to his blood, liver lung and brain, yes, it does not get much worse then this but being the man he was, he fought the entire way through but seeing the strongest man I knew go from the stocky fellow I had always feared and respected to a man too weak to walk or even talk, however do not confuse this last statement as a loss of respect from me, in fact if anything it grew. This comment is not meant to be a poor me call for help because in order for me to deal with this loss I did what I do best. I worked. I continued back at school 5 days after his funeral. This allowed me to focus on other things and kept this feeling of overwhelming sorrow stew in the back of my mind, I continued in the Air Cadets and was doing better then ever until I went through his music library. A seemingly menial task, but this was the turning point that shook my carefully planned structure and ignorance. I had not wept for my father, and did not on that day either but I realized that I needed to stop. Stop and realize what was important to me and how I would become a man without the approval of my father. I turned to this website for a great deal of information and tried to make a man out of a boy. I focussed more on my fitness, defining my values and improving what I wanted in my life. This is all to say that as much as these event do not come with an instruction manual, often times the best response is to stop. Just take a second and figure out how this makes you feel, not in a tie-dye, hippie – kumbaya kind of way but in a very “art of manliness”, straight forward addressing of all that is within your mind (for which I highly recommend a good journal to unravel your thoughts, I have 4). Because truly there is no 12 step program to filling that gaping hole in your heart, but you must soldier on.

123 Daniel October 22, 2013 at 4:11 am

A little over 48 hours ago I heard that one of my very good friends had died, less than 24 hours before that we were organising to go rock climbing on Friday. Now I will be going to his funeral on Friday.

At the moment all I can ask is why, why did he have to fly down to pick up that bike, why did he not leave 10 seconds earlier or later, why didn’t I call him when I picked up the phone to double check a time and why did some dick do a U-turn straight after a blind turn and run into my friend.

I have sworn at the driver of the other car, at him at god and at me. I keep thinking he is not dead and this is just temporary. I keep asking how a 52 year old can kill a 24 year old and just get minor injuries. I miss my friend and am not sure how I can be here and he isn’t.

124 Karaitiana January 6, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Thanks for an article that I find myself coming back to every once in a while, for both the article and also the comments.
I have found in my experience to grieve early and vigorously is the safest way through such life influencing lose.
Regardless of circumstance it is important to acknowledge the person for the impact they had on your life, celebrate the person they have helped you become and also the knowledge shared and time they spent with you.

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